To its opponents, a beauty pageant is nothing more than an archaic, sexist practice that should have no place in modern society.
In a paradox of sorts, however, the Miss Japan pageant is considered to have played an important part in highlighting the issue of racism in the island country.
The discussion around racism in Japan was triggered by 22-year-old Priyanka Yoshikawa winning the Miss Japan crown on Tuesday, 6 September. Yoshikawa, whose Indian father hails from Kolkata (her mother is Japanese), found herself at the centre of a storm after social media users wondered why a "haafu" (a Japanese term for mixed race individuals, playing on the word "half") had won the title.
As most reports noted, Yoshikawa is not the first haafu to win a Japanese beauty pageant.
Last year, Ariana Miyamoto (she has a Japanese mother and an African-American father) became the first person of biracial descent to win the Miss Japan title. She represented Japan in the Miss Universe pageant, and finished in the top 10.
Miyamoto faced quite the backlash from critics who felt she "didn't look Japanese".
In interviews at the time, Miyamoto talked about the discrimination she faced growing up, of a young haafu friend who committed suicide after being unable to cope with the everyday racism, and how she hoped to change the understanding of what it meant to be "Japanese".
When Priyanka Yoshikawa won the Miss Japan pageant on Tuesday, she made her gratitude to Miyamoto evident.
She said that it was Miyamoto's participation (and win) that had convinced her (Yoshikawa) that even haafu girls could represent the country on such platforms.
Yoshikawa also shared her own tales of struggling to come to terms with her identity; she referred to her mixed race being used against her, of being treated like 'a germ'.
Both Yoshikawa and Miyamoto are the 'faces' of an issue in Japan that is not always addressed: its racism.
Accounts of the racism in Japan link it back to its history, especially the early 1600s when the Togukawa shogunate closed the country off from the rest of the world. There were stringent restrictions on the entry of foreigners in Japan, until Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet laid siege to Edo Bay in the mid-1800s. While Emperor Komei issued the 'Order to Expel Barbarians' in 1863, it was too late by then to stop the flux that had already begun to change Japanese society.
In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake is believed to have triggered the racism against Chinese and Korean people in Japan that exists to this day.
Xenophobia is just one aspect. Discriminatory attitudes in Japan can extend towards various ethnic groups within the country itself, like the Okinawans/Ryukyuans, Ainu etc.
Mixed race people, foreigners, minority ethnic groups can routinely be denied access to employment opportunities, housing, and the legal protections that those of "Japanese blood" enjoy.
Japan is hardly the only country in the world where racism is an issue.
If we go back to the stories of Priyanka Yoshikawa and Ariana Miyamoto, then the example of Nina Davuluri — the Indian-origin Miss America 2014 who was subjected to racist rants on social media, including being called an 'Arab' — is bound to come up.
Racism in Japan is different beast because the generally accepted assumption that the society there is homogeneous means the issue is confronted less often (than other places).
But as the cases of Yoshikawa and Miyamoto have shown — as well as other high-profile haafu like Mashu Baker (who won the Olympic gold medal in judo at Rio) and sprinter Aska Cambridge — the definition of what it means to be 'Japanese' is changing, and it's a giant step forward.
First Published On : Sep 7, 2016 13:59 IST